“Well, you can’t fire the whole team,” is the hoary ol’ cliché everyone (and my mother) whips out when a coach is fired. The phrase itself implies the notion that really you should just clean house and start over, but there are signed contracts that must be honored. The coaches don’t have a union and every coach’s contract comes with the standard trapdoor clause which is installed under their desks.
Still firing a coach before the end of a season (hell, before the end of a ROAD TRIP!) smacks of a desperation akin to a TV show bringing in a new character to boost sagging ratings. In other words, if you have to bring in Chachi (or Poochie), you may have already jumped the shark.
But how did it get this bad for the Lightning? Surely, last season was a suckfest. Steven Stamkos still won the Rocket Richard with a sixty goal season but really I think that’s all that can be said that was positive. Many lay the blame on GM Steve Yzerman’s decision to resign Dwayne Roloson after an impressive playoff run. But Roli proved he wasn’t up to the task for another year and had an abysmal 3.66 GA and .886 save percentage leaving an inconsistent Mattieu Garon to take over – if he wasn’t hurt.
This season (once it finally started after the Dadaist farce that was the lockout with overripe melodrama and intrigue seemingly lifted from a late Tennessee Williams play was supposed to be different. Yzerman addressed the goalie issue by getting Anders Lindback who was working out well until the groin injury and the subsequent high ankle sprain (the high ankle sprain is to goalies what consumption is to soprano heroines in opera – it lingers until they die in Act IV) left us with the ever shaky Garon.
Stevie Y also brought in more defense (since Mattias Ohlund’s knees are apparently only tissue paper now and he will never skate again) with Matt Carle and Sammy Salo who is considered a ‘stay at home’ defenseman (I really hate that term – it makes it sound like he’s at the blue line ironing and watching “Ellen” while the rest of the team does the work).
Their job was to assist perennial fan whipping boy Victor Hedman and Eric “Bruiser” Brewer. To be fair, Victor has been improving. Yes, there’s still the odd reverse up the boards to the opposing team, or deflecting the puck into his own net, but he’s also shooting the puck more with four goals on the season. He’s even earned a spot in the shootouts. He’s currently plus six on the season despite the horrendous giveaways he makes usually every three games.
And certainly the Lightning started very well going 6-2. Captain Vinny Lecavalier was playing a more physical game getting into two fights (of course both of those were against the Flyers – which is no surprise – if those thugs had a mascot, it would be a mugshot). Inspirational feel-good story Cory Conacher made the team and was racking up points earning him consideration for Rookie of the Year. Then came the road trip.
The Lightning have had their road woes in the past but this was truly something special. The only game they didn’t lose on that trip was the Boston game delayed because of huge storm. But once they got home, they still kept losing. It got so bad that our beloved homer announcers Rick Peckham and Bobby “The Chief” Taylor were trying to drum up excitement at one point by announcing that the Lightning were only SEVEN POINTS out of the playoffs. And this is in the Southeast Division (aka ‘The Losing-est Teams in The League’).
Oh right, and then the injuries. Practically everyone was injured once if not multiple times. Ryan Malone pulled a groin during the pregame soccer game in the hallway. Once back, he injured his shoulder on a check. Vinny was out with his foot (again). Salo got hurt and when he got back, Hedman went out. The rotating roster (which sounds dirty but isn’t) allowed several callups from Syracuse which has gone well, and bodes well for the future of the organization.
For example: Alex Killorn has seven goals, plays very well, and has a killer smile. Ryan Malone still wins in the adorable smile category since his eyes sparkle and beam. Killorn’s smile is more intense – like maybe he’s thinking about beating you up. A quick digression on groin injuries: Why are there so many? Are there not enough people to massage the thighs of hockey players? I know plenty of people (me) who will gladly volunteer. Oh pardon me, I’ve just been informed that apparently you have to be certified to rub the genital area. Strange, I’ve never had anyone ask me for credentials before.
The biggest offender of the season was really apathetic play. Even Marty St. Louis, normally so energized and dynamic, seemed to be just ‘skating through the motions’ as though awaiting the endgame (not the fun Beckett Endgame).
Now I don’t have access to the locker room (Please Lightning, let me visit the locker room. I promise I won’t steal any gear), so I won’t pretend I completely understand the team’s mentality, but it seemed as though the players had given up on Coach Boucher’s system. But I’m also sure that Boucher wasn’t saying “Make blind passes that lead to giveaways in the defensive zone” which seemed de rigueur for each game.
Yzerman said that he decided to fire Boucher after the first period of the Ottawa game on 3/23. It should be noted that they Lightning did try to come back in that game, but the die was cast. (alia iacta est, bitches) Let’s also note that the Lightning have the best Third Period goal differential in the league. That may also be because opponents are playing with, oh say a three or four goal lead, and they fall into a stupor and allow the Lightning to score. Sure, it’s fun to watch the Lightning tie up the game with only seconds left, but you know what else is fun? Watching your team actually play with the lead, that’s fun.
Coach Boucher, fired before the game in Winnipeg (which they still lost), was a class act all the way. He wished the organization all the best and even flew back and thanked all the staff for their hard work. He will be missed for his laser focused ‘Death Stare’ (patent pending) and his non PC mocking of officials. Also, I still long to ask him about his conversations with Scotty Bowman as I’m so curious what those lovers of head games might have discussed.
To replace a coach who came from the AHL, you obviously find another AHL coach. Although, it may be more about the fact that new coach Jon Cooper had already coached many of the team when they were on the Syracuse Crunch. He also seems to be more of a ‘player’s coach’ (And what does that mean? Is it like the ‘Player’s Club?’), but I notice that in interviews he still has the ‘deer in headlights’ look. It can’t be easy to suddenly take over a struggling team filled with people you barely know and come up with some miraculous plan when the team still struggles to get the puck out of their own zone without coughing it up.
Some help has arrived in the form of goalie Ben Bishop. True, the Bolts gave up Cory Conacher and a draft pick, but Bishop has proved pretty solid. He seems focused and calm, reads the play well, and possesses a fairly mean poke check. Plus, he’s a big body who moves well. (Another phrase I hate – if he moved poorly, he wouldn’t be a goalie) Still, in must win situations, the team still comes up short. There are flashes of brilliance: hard work in the corner leading to a goal, brilliant defensive play that looks effortless, but these are few and far between. Mostly, they manage to win games only if the other team loses them first.
Who will show up next season? Will there be a new coach? Maybe some buyouts of fan favorites suckling on the salary cap teat? Will the GM be replaced mid-season? There might be more changes in personnel than the new season of Downton Abbey. If only we could get Maggie Smith on skates. P.S. – Follow the adventures of #DowntonHockey.
Eric Pinder is an actor, writer, Director in Residence for Florida Opera Theatre, and performer of various theme park extravaganzas. He is writing a hockey opera currently titled “Das Rinkgold.” You can follow him on Twitter @operahockeyguy. His dad was once punched in the face by Jean Beliveau. Yes, that Jean Beliveau.